Don’t Go West Young Man: A Report from the Hungarian Front

Teaching at the University of Budapest one semester each year brings one in a quasi-immediate contact with the intellectual-political establishment. In this respect, Hungary is like France, where the intelligentsia is near-compact, a republic of letters where everybody knows everybody else. This does not mean, again like in Paris, that people are friendly to each other and that many do not feel marginalized, but it does not take too long a time to start the dialogue. With whom? With people who matter in intellectual life, either as smart survivors of the “old regime,” or as visibly ready to become spokesmen of the future. All are thrown together by memories, by past complicity or resistance, by common references and strongly motivated likes and dislikes.

It is a very different society from America, where intellectuals do not form a class and businessmen occupy the center stage. In Hungary, intellectuals are a separate entity, but businessmen are not heard about much; they are active in their own world. At any rate, they constitute a thin layer, concentrated mainly in the capital, and are often of immigrant stock, German or Jewish. Their dynamism and newly created contact with Western partners and their insistence on the country’s integration with the West garner a largely indifferent popular response; they remain, whether for good or evil, unrepresentative of old as well as of new Hungary. Hence the frequent sense of frustration of foreign investors who think they labor for the good of both parties, yet find an anonymous opposition. They then conclude that this is the consequence of 40 years of communism, and that new entrepreneurial and working habits will have to be instilled in the population.

This is wishful thinking. The fact is, things are becoming similar to what they were before the Soviet regime. People take hard and skilled work for granted, but resist high-efficiency capitalist methods. Thus, it would be wrong to say that Communist presence created a tabula rasa on which Western influence can now build a little USA or Japan. There was no tabula rasa for four decades, but rather a suspended state. Things will return to normal—to what has always been normal, not to the breathless tempo of Western industrial societies.

What, in fact, are the future lines of demarcation? A cautious distrust of the West, reinforced in 1956, is likely to persist, as people realize that neither NATO, nor Washington, nor the European Community will lift a finger to save Croatia and Hungary’s southern border and to stop one of the most atrocity-filled wars in the Balkans since the Turkish razzias. It is not hard to reach the conclusion that more wars may break out. There is, similarly, distrust of Western commercial ventures with their emphasis on sex, luxury items, and an advertisement mania that destroys even television programming, which has remained of an amazingly high quality. Concerning Western business initiatives, let’s bear in mind that, while privatization deprives hundreds of thousands of their jobs (some half-a-million for 1992), what people see is not the few beneficial foreign partnerships with unmodern Hungarian industry, but sex-shops, boutiques with $500 dresses, and enterprises catering to tourists and the local nouveaux riches—most of whom are recycled ex-Communist leaders with Party-funds saved for their own capitalist ventures. People keep track, name names, and note what the West means by aid and rescue operations.


What is it that the people favor? America is too far, more a legend than a geographical location, it is rich and selfish; as a great empire it could never be loved by Hungarians, who have had experience with half-a-dozen of them, from Byzance to the Habsburgs. At any rate, America can be in no sense a model for a small, Central-European nation. While nobody believes here that small is beautiful (it is rather a plaything for the big), people tend to trust models of their own size from which they can concretely learn: Austria, Belgium, the Baltic States.

Integration with a “united Europe” is a temporary necessity, but without illusions: such a community will also be dominated by the powers, first of all by Germany. True, the latter implies dangers with its inevitable imperial interests, yet Germans are at least historically familiar: their work habits, methods of organization, their language. The policy of the Antall government (he has the only statesman-stature in the nation) is what geopolitics tolerates, in fact, dictates: Hungary as a factor of regional stability, culturally European and Western, diplomatically a building block of the Eastern European community, extending from Vienna to Kiev. A proof that things don’t change is that Count Teleki, prime minister in the late 1930s and early 1940s under Admiral Horthy, had the same vision. His vision was premature, Soviet Russia’s looming presence was intolerable, hence the necessity of the German march against it. There was no place for a version of Magyar Switzerland.

This evaluation is largely shared by the Magyar intelligentsia, who are remarkably unanimous about history’s lines of force, although much less so about domestic matters. It is divided, like its counterpart in Russia some 130 years ago, between populists and Westernizers, the latter being the day’s liberals. Liberalism does seem to recruit followers, but this is not what Americans would call liberalism, but rather the 1850 variety, when Count Szechenyi, the “greatest Magyar” as he is still called, founded institutions on the British model. The difference between it and the American model today is one of democratic and cultural choice: Szechenyi and his friends wanted reforms aristocratically implanted, from the top down; today’s version would be from bottom up, something to which Hungarians, notwithstanding their rhetoric, are not attuned to. Intellectuals likewise approve such reformism in principle, but reject it when they see it in practice. “We don’t want to become a Disneyland,” as one of them put it. Local initiatives, yes, but also limits to democracy and to the free market. More than 30 percent would opt for ownership of big enterprises by the state. These preferences are not a Communist heritage; they have a history which long predates it.

Public opinion, not just the elite, seems to know what it does not want. How about the vast field of choices which may soon narrow as the country regains its normal rhythm and the interest blocks fall into place? The multitude of channels of opinion should not mislead us. The many publishing houses and bookstores, the high-quality journals (I counted more than 30 excellent ones, just for the general educated reader), new universities, and the fascinating style of the political debate—all tend to divide along ideological lines conducted with high calibre arguments. I even watched television, something I usually never do, with fascination, whether discussion of poetry or confrontation in parliament. The reason is that the choice of the future is cultural, with roots in philosophical issues.

The majority, reflected in the parties of the governing coalition, seems to want a moderately center-right, patriotic, Christian country; the minority, reflected in the opposition (now in disarray but alive in its component parts) votes for a social democratic, pluralistic, let’s-forget-the-past solution. The issue turns on the content of the cultural assumptions that nobody can clearly define and which is anyway a collective product. The choice facing Hungary is in the hands of two groups. One is formed by the men of letters, intellectuals, professors, writers, publishers, and students; the other by the bishops, the clergy, and political militants and activists.

In order to describe the first group, it is all-important to understand how the school system functions. What I knew before 1945 was based on the combined features of the German gymnasium and the French system of narrowing selection up to and at the university. It may be surprising, but the framework and the program have largely survived, except that the Marxist regime opened it up socially at the bottom and practiced selection against so-called “class enemies.” But Latin, for example, has remained in the gymnasia, so did philosophy in the last year of school; and the humanities courses of my youth also proved stable fare, although the Marxist interpretation prevailed in courses of history and literature. The system allowed many opportunities for dissent, for good teachers to rectify bad or erroneous textbook material, and, particularly, for the free cultural roaming of inquisitive minds among students, often encouraged and aided by professors.

The product of this situation which challenged the best minds is a highly motivated elite among today’s young who list their objectives as the encounter with true knowledge over against lies and wooden language, and a moral and patriotic resistance to permanent campaigns of denationalizing and dehumanizing them. Often strange compromises were made that many accepted: since philosophy and religion were “supervised” subjects, students were tempted by the study of esoteric cults, so that some of my students, in 1991, are still attracted to Oriental religions and ethical systems.

The students I met, in class and outside, are equal in knowledge and seriousness with the best I have found in Western European universities, with an additional and important advantage. The damage caused in the West by a whole array of corrosive doctrines was done by Marxism alone in the East. Yet, while the Western ideologies dissolved the concept of truth, Marxism preserved it, in no matter how degraded a form. Thus, students and professors had one identifiable enemy to combat, whom they confronted with an array of tricks and weapons: Aesopian language, proofs of contradiction in the official teaching, even silence—a refusal to comment on texts which stood there in their intellectual nakedness.

The second group of leaders mentioned above arises from the Catholic Church. Here the Communists’ censorial supervision was obviously stricter, but this was balanced by obligatory good relations with Rome as part of the world politics directed from Moscow. The eight gymnasia that the Church was authorized to keep became prestigious even in the eyes of Party officials of lower rank, who often petitioned ecclesiastical authorities for their children’s admission. The Church then decided on whether to say yes or no. The cautious and often strained situation did not, however, prevent serious theological studies and philosophical investigation; in fact, the Church remained in closest contact with Western research through regular communication with Rome. The hardship factor was not so much the Bureau of Cultic Affairs and culture tsar, George Acel, as it was the dissident priests and their self-promotion to the status of important thinkers.

It would be an error to think that from now on religious issues will receive a “Roman” solution. Before 1945 Hungary was not a confessional state; freemasons and anti-clericals held much political power. The present government restored crucifixes on classroom walls in public schools, but pro-abortion policy will not be reversed by a simple fiat. Informally, however, there is the influence of Catholic conscience opposing the licentiousness which clogs Western channels of culture, and just as importantly there is a moral cooperation between the churches (there is a sturdy Calvinist minority) and essential patriotic endeavors. The Church in Eastern and Central Europe used to be accused of drawing advantages from the class-structure and from the “alliance of throne and altar.” The class structure is under reconstruction, it will never be the same again. The scandalously profiteering nouveaux riches are certainly not on the way to becoming an elite; in fact, their self-important behavior is like that of the nomenklatura in the recent past. To characterize it briefly, an increasingly self-assured patriotism seems to be the ground in which institutions are now re-rooted.

If a balance sheet must be drawn up, it may be said that culture in the 1950-1980 period—that is, under the persecution—did not exactly thrive, since culture is a communitarian enterprise and the Communist Party had the means of at least disconnecting the culture networks. On the other hand, it was unable to interfere with individual creativeness, scholarship, and erudition. For the past 15 years there has been a small renaissance. Some of its products—films, novels, essays, poetry—were authorized by the government and based on compromise: you, leading man of letters (composer, literary historian, archeologist, etc.) may publish your manuscript and we will print thousands of copies of the book, selling it at a low, accessible price; you, however, do not directly oppose us and accept a degree of cooperation. What was thus produced was not always of the highest standard, yet the by-product—classical studies, national poetry with traditional themes, debates on historical periods, composition of religious music—slipped in, and the censor, quick to sense the wind turning, had no reason to remove such oeuvre from the list of publishables. Toward the end, publishers and the censorship bureau saw practically eye-to-eye.

What helped and sustained intellectual life throughout this period—a period of brutal repression until about 1980, the era of compromises afterwards—was first of all the non-extinguishable national tradition: patriotic, religious, literary, and linguistic. In the second place, the solid foundation provided by a German-oriented culture, from the school system to the popularity of Goethe, Beethoven, Ranke, Mommsen, and Thomas Mann. Germany was, throughout even the Communist interlude, Hungary’s window to the West, a stronger influence than French, English, or American culture. After all, it is from German philosophical principles from which, or against which, Marx himself had drawn his theoretical sustenance, and which therefore helped opponents to find arguments critical of the master.

The question nowadays before the intellectual establishment is rather simple to formulate: How to protect the old culture and its genuine continuities in the present against the cascading Western influence? Even in the years of the persecution, then of the modus vivendi with the Party, and in spite of numerous, humiliating concessions, the talents and the works suppressed or prostituted—still, the devotion to nation, to cultural standards, and to a certain inherited image of the West remained intact. Many Party officials helped strengthen and keep alive this devotion and this image, not in order to collect relics, but because they had, as Marxists, a sense of history and were cultured men with contempt for their Moscow comrades.

Contemporary Western cultural influence enters now this overall state of affairs with an arrogant superiority, eager to sell its products. These are mostly destructive of the rather well-preserved cultural heritage because they advertise the equivalence of all “values,” tear apart nation and faith in the name of free competition, dissolve the family and the classroom in the name of democracy and multiculturalism, the latest fad. And they reintroduce, through their unexamined and unexaminable notions, a new kind of monolithism which Hungarians thought they had disposed of with the old. In the past, Lenin’s name was obligatorily mentioned in literary or scientific works (before that, Stalin’s); now visions of human rights are the cultic idols. People are again handled like children; the new indoctrination is scarcely more subtle than the old.

Under these circumstances, the national debate will in the end propose a realistic answer. The debate is: how much of the old Hungary, how much modernization? Perhaps if the country floated in an ahistorical vacuum, in the post-history of Fukuyama, modernization would have a monopoly on the future. Aren’t the material conditions catastrophic, the phone not working, unemployment climbing? But we are not in utopia, and we know that utopias are self-destructive: if not materially, then morally. Thus, modernization programs must have another face, too: stability, a quietly but committedly articulated national destiny.

Can the West help? Hungarians, hardened by 1000 years’ history, are realistic enough to doubt it, even to doubt whether any sincere desire to do so exists. Mitterrand’s only preoccupation is the weakening of Germany, London’s responsibility in the Balkan turmoil is blatant, Washington is worried about Middle Eastern oil, and the hands of Moscow and Kiev are on the nuclear button. The West is not otherwise interested; it hasn’t been since 1500, when the Ottomans became masters of the area. Hungarians have simply no illusions, and jokes with a gallows humor circulate about Western promises. Yet, the older people are less resistant, they are still nostalgic for Paris, Zurich, Berlin, and Rome as these places used to be. The younger ones welcome the reopened contacts and the many fellowships that Western universities and laboratories offer, but return home and spread the news: Sure, they are richer, but they are not better than we, and their comfort has been corrupting and degrading. Slowly, a balanced view comes into focus, and it carries an inscription: “Go West, young man, but don’t stay long!”

Thomas Molnar


Thomas Steven Molnar (1921-2010) was born in Budapest, studied at Columbia University, and was a Catholic philosopher, historian and political theorist.

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